Established in 1909, the Whiffenpoofs, a Yale institution, are the oldest collegiate a capella organization in the United States. Until this year, despite many women auditioning throughout the years as protest against the policy, the Whiffenpoofs have remained an all-male group.
Finally though, in February 2018 the Whiffenpoofs announced that they would begin accepting persons of all genders into the a capella organization, and for their first admission, selected Sofía Campoamor, a music major and rising senior at the New Haven university.
I had an opportunity to talk to Campoamor about her status as the first female Whiffenpoof, as well as what expectations, opportunities and challenges the honor holds.
Kate Maxwell: What inspired your decision to major in music at Yale?
Sofía Campoamor: I decided to major in music during my sophomore year, after a year pursuing a theatre studies major. I had performed in school as an actor, singer and songwriter since middle school, so at the beginning of college, I was taking a variety of music and theater classes and extracurriculars.
When I started to think about my senior project or thesis, however, I realized what made me most excited was the opportunity to record and perform original music. The composition courses offered in the music major allowed me to do that.
KM: You are also a member of Mixed Company, another Yale a capella organization. What’s your background with them?
SC: I joined Mixed Company after I got to Yale, so I am going on three years with the group. I served as the musical director this year, and have also served as the performance director, assistant music director and tour manager.
KM: What inspired your decision to audition for The Whiffenpoofs?
SC: I first heard the Whiffenpoofs when they performed at my high school in 2011. I was amazed at the fact that college singers could travel the world singing semi-professionally. However, at the time I didn’t know about the all-male requirement, and I didn’t know that I would be going to Yale, so my decision really began my freshman year at Yale.
Some of my female junior friends were auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs in protest of their single-gender policy, which is something that women and gender non-conforming people have been doing for decades.
It didn’t make sense to me that senior a capella groups and the opportunities associated with them were segregated by gender, so I decided that I would audition for the group as a senior, regardless of whether or not they were considering me.
KM: What sets The Whiffenpoofs apart from other a capella organizations at Yale?
SC: The Whiffenpoofs are accepted as a group of rising seniors, whereas other a capella organizations at Yale are composed of first-year, sophomore and junior students. They are the oldest collegiate a capella group, at 109 years old. In recent years, members have begun taking a year off between their junior and senior years to perform semi-professionally around the world.
In addition to The Whiffenpoofs, there is the Whim ‘n Rhythm, the other senior a capella organization at Yale. Whim ‘n Rhythm is an SSAA (Soprano I, Soprano II, Alto I, Alto II) group, and The Whiffenpoofs are a TTBB (Tenor I, Tenor II, Baritone, Bass) group.
Until this year, Whim was an all-female group and Whiff was an all-male group. This year, both groups decided to describe themselves based on voice part rather than gender.
KM: What was the audition process like?
SC: The process of auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs occured over the span of two weeks, but each audition was around half an hour over one week.
The audition consisted of warming up and down to demonstrate vocal range, pitch matching, sight reading, blending and communicating with current members while singing in a prepared quartet and a prepared solo. The second week of auditions were for business managers and musical directors to audition.
KM: Were you surprised by The Whiffenpoofs’ decision to accept you as the first woman into the group?
SC: I was very surprised! I knew that the possibility was real in a way that it had never been before, but it was unclear to me how the group’s new all-gender policy would play out in practice. Mostly, I just knew that there were many talented singers auditioning, so being offered a spot as a person of any gender was a big deal.
KM: To you, what is the significance of The Whiffenpoofs allowing non-male members to join the group?
SC: The Whiffenpoofs represent a unique opportunity in collegiate singing, one that I do not believe should be restricted on the basis of gender. Due to their age and the status that they’ve been afforded as a previously all-male group at Yale, the Whiffenpoofs have had access to a level of opportunity, resources and prestige that no other group would be able to replicate, so I think that it is important for more people who are not men to have access to the opportunities the Whiffs provide.
I’m not sure how this will work in the future, however. If the a capella system at Yale stays the same as it was this year, with the SSAA Whims and the TTBB Whiffs, the Whiffenpoofs will probably see a handful of non-male members in the upcoming years.
However, I hope the discussion about Yale senior a capella does not end here, because I believe that singing as a senior should not require singing in a gendered space, as TTBB parts will still be overwhelmingly sung by men and SSAA parts by women.
KM: What are you most looking forward to in your time as a Whiffenpoof?
SC: I am looking forward to the variety of audiences and locations I will be able to interact with next year. Besides international travel to places I have not been, I am looking forward to being able to perform for friends and family who I don’t see regularly and who don’t normally get to hear me perform.
KM: Lastly, is there any advice that you would give other women who are interested in the performing arts?
SC: Don’t count yourself out of a project or a dream that excites you. Don’t wait for someone else’s permission to make art. Some of my most rewarding experiences have happened doing work I didn’t know I was capable of and would have thought that I was unqualified for if I had known going in what it would involve.